TOPICS > Science

Viking Treasure Unearthed in Northern England

July 19, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

NICHOLAS GLASS, ITV News Correspondent: This was, as one British museum curator called it, something of a Viking piggy bank. Almost everything here is silver. Fresh from the earth, it awaits a jolly good clean, but it still glints here and there. All of this was Viking currency to buy slaves, horses, hunting dogs, cloth, whatever. And all of it was found jam-packed into a single vessel or pot.

It’s been buried for over 1,000 years. And as you can see, it’s obviously still covered in a coating of dust and dirt and waits to be cleaned. It’s silver, and it’s gilded. It was probably used originally in the ninth century to dispense the host the bread to the congregation, probably somewhere in France or Germany. How the Vikings came by it, we can only hazard a guess.

The swish of a metal detector across stubble on Yorkshire farmland. Dave Whelan is from Leeds and, at 51, semi-retired. Obviously, this has been his hobby for the last three years. His son, Andrew, a surveyor, usually tags along, too. They’ve never ever really found much — the occasional Roman coin — until, that is, they tried a farm near Harrogate.

How the treasure was found

DAVE WHELAN, Found Viking Treasure: We went to a field that we'd got permission on to detect. We were there about 10 minutes, and I got this signal. I dug down and got a stronger signal, so I kept going. And I started getting lead out, bits of lead. And I kept going, pulling lead out. Big signal, and then this round thing fell into the hole. And I thought, "Oh, it's a bulk-up from an old lead system."

So I put my glasses on, lifted it out, put my glasses on, and I could see it was a bowl with all bits of silver in the top, and the coins stuck in the top, and a lovely bowl. So I went over and brought Andrew back, told him we'd found a hoard, went home. That's it.

SONJA MARZINZIK, Curator, British Museum: When I came to a metallurgist conservation studio, I, of course, knew there was a big haul that had just come in, but already two trays full of coins had been laid out. And as archeologists, you don't necessarily think of hundreds of objects. And there are literally hundreds of objects available already.

And a conservator was sitting there with a microscope and let me have a look, and with a pair of tweezers, and was excavating more and more material as we were there. And while we're in the studio, she found the first Arabic coin. And we had said, "Wouldn't it be nice if there were some (inaudible) in there?" And she did (inaudible) the day we came down.

Analyzing Viking bounty

NICHOLAS GLASS: This coin is Armenian. The Vikings traded and looted widely. Most of the 600 coins are Anglo-Saxon. This one bears the name of Athelstan and claims in Latin that he is king of all Britain. The Vikings would've disputed that.

Many coins carry the names of the men who minted them, Saxon names such as Wulfred. The hoard, silver ingots and all, seems to have been buried at a time in the early 10th century when the Saxons were reasserting themselves. The Whelans, father and son, and the unnamed farmer who owns the land will share the proceeds.

So how did you feel knowing that you two were the men responsible for finding one of the most important pieces of archaeological history in the country?

DAVE WHELAN: Quite pleased, yes, very pleased.

NICHOLAS GLASS: What Dave Whelan initially thought was a ballcock should brush up quite nicely. The British museum already has one of the few other examples gleaming in a cabinet. The newly discovered pot is gilded; x-rays show it's wonderfully decorated with animals. The British Museum and York Museum will be seeking lottery money to acquire the hoard.

JIM LEHRER: The new Viking bounty could be worth the equivalent of about $1.5 million.